PedagogyPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: What languages have you studied?

Hey there, skeptical scholars!

I got a bit of exciting news this week, as the school at which I took Japanese classes a couple of years ago has invited me back to join an intermediate class (my own cohort all dropped by the end of our first year, so the class was cancelled going  forward).

I really enjoyed taking the classes, especially as they served as a welcome change of pace from my usual work, so I’m glad to get the chance to go back. I even downloaded a fancy kanji app to my phone to brush up on characters and stroke order!

As much as I enjoyed taking the classes though, I have always had a bit of a paedagogical quibble with the way this particular language school runs things: they employ only native speakers of the target language as teachers–something they advertise with pride–but I’ve always felt that not only are the benefits of a native speaker mostly lost on beginners (aside from matters of pronunciation and accent), native speakers also come with the drawback of never having had the experience of learning the target language as an outsider. This often means that, unless they have a great deal of specialised training or experience, they are not usually as well equipped to deal with the special problems beginning students often have, and sometimes have fewer effective tips or strategies to overcome these difficulties when compared to a teacher who did not grow up speaking the language.

This problem is particularly evident in cases where the teacher does not have good command of the students’ primary language and thus has some trouble explaining details of basic grammar in a clear and precise manner (since it is usually not possible to conduct these discussions in the target language with beginning students).

In my opinion it is best in the vast majority of cases to leave beginning students to non-native teachers, while reserving native speakers for intermediate and advanced students who can derive much greater benefit from their interactions.

What about you? What languages have you studied or taught? Do you prefer native speakers for beginning levels? Why or why not?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Featured image: Erin Silversmith

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!


  1. August 19, 2013 at 4:00 pm —

    I’ve studied German, Italian and Russian, and I’ve always had native speakers as teachers. I’d always thought that was the best choice, but from your point of view, I really do think the non-natives could be an excellent option for beginners (and intermediates too, since in the intermediate levels is when most intricate difficulties arise).

    Once in Russian classes I made my teacher realize something she had never thought about, which is something that wouldn’t have happened with a non-native teacher. We were supposed to write correctly the words she was saying, now, in Russian, the unaccented o sounds exactly like an a, and I do mean exactly like it, so naturally, many of us confused the o’s and the a’s, and she told us that in order to know whether the word goes with an a or an o, we should transform the words into another form (by declensions, etc.) in which the accent fell upon the desired letter. But if we barely knew the words, how could we do that? I did tell her that for us that’s not an option, that the a’s and o’s weren’t all that simple as she thought. She had to think about it for a while until she realized that, indeed, she would have to allow for some mistakes, or give us some hints. I noticed that time, but who knows how many other subjects we could’ve learned in a more efficient way with a non-native…

    • August 19, 2013 at 11:41 pm —

      This reminds me of a friend of mine who is a native Italian speaker. Back when we first met, she was baffled by the idea that native speakers of English might have some trouble learning English spelling: she just assumed that, as it was for her growing up with Italian, the spelling would just somehow be obvious based on the sound of the words.

      This is, of course, not the case. I brought out a few of my favourites to show how far spelling could actually be from sound: Gloucestershire/Worcestershire, gauge, solder, victuals, subtle.

      • August 23, 2013 at 5:48 pm —

        My favorite in that sense is definitely ‘queue’. But there are countless examples…English spelling is a mess, whether you’re a native speaker or not. Italian, German, Spanish, they all have pretty concise spelling rules, with few exceptions.

  2. August 20, 2013 at 12:01 pm —

    I’ve studied Hebrew, Yiddish, English, and one semester of Japanese (my native language is Spanish). Hebrew and Yiddish I was taught by non-native speakers who had teacher training. English I was taught by native speakers who also had teacher training. All this happened in school (grades K-12).

    I took one semester of Japanese in Grad school, the semester after I passed my Qualifying Exams. There we had only native speakers; the class was one hour a day, five days a week; each day we had a different instructor (we were told this was so we would be exposed to different accents and styles, and I could tell the difference between a few of the speakers), of which in my memory only two were “professional” teachers and the other two were graduate students working on something else in the Department and teaching these classes as their service. There were pluses and minuses to this arrangement, in my mind. You are right that many of the teachers had difficulty communicating with the students, and we did not get an overabundance of grammar or other syntax instruction. But then, that’s probably an overburden in a beginner course. I found the communciation difficulty the most troubling. But I would also reserve grammar and other more theoretical instruction to an intermediate course: the beginner course should focus on a good vocabulary and the basics, I think. I think I got a bit more out of the Japanese class, in a short time, than I would have gotten from something more traditional, but I also had the benefit of at least some of the instrction being done by native-speaker teaching professionals.

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